Black and white vintage photo of Art Rupe holding a trench coat

Art Rupe

Courtesy of the Billy Vera Collection
2011
Category:
Ahmet Ertegun Award

Rock and roll as we know it would not exist without Art Rupe.

He brought R&B and soul into the mainstream and launched Little Richard’s career. Rupe’s fastidious work ethic and uncanny musical intuition shaped the evolution of rock.

Biography

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Art Rupe is part of a select fraternity of music-biz trailblazers that includes Sam Phillips, Leonard and Phil Chess, Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Syd Nathan.

As founder of Specialty Records, one of the premier independent labels of the rock and roll era, Art Rupe signed and recorded numerous legends in the areas of rhythm & blues, rock & roll and gospel music.

Specialty helped bring a niche market (rhythm & blues) into the mainstream and also helped ignite the rock and roll revolution by launching the career of Little Richard. Other stars who shone at Specialty include Roy Milton, Percy Mayfield, Lloyd Price, Larry Williams and brothers Joe and Jimmy Liggins. Such icons of soul music as Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor and Lou Rawls began as gospel singers in acts like the Soul Stirrers and the Chosen Gospel Singers, which recorded for Specialty. Specialty’s roster of gospel greats also included Professor Alex Bradford, Brother Joe May, Sister Wynona Carr, the Swan Silvertones and the Pilgrim Travelers. Even Ray Charles had early ties to Specialty, having played piano (as “R.C. Robinson”) on Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used to Do,” a major R&B hit in 1954. 

From its founding in 1946 through 1960, Specialty issued nearly four hundred fifty rhythm & blues and rock & roll singles, including such classics as Joe Liggins’ “Pink Champagne,” Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and Larry Williams’ “Bony Moronie.” Add to those the many gospel releases on Specialty, and you have one amazing catalog of recorded music. Rupe, while moving on to other areas and interests, has remained involved with its preservation and reissue. In fact, he was the last label mogul to maintain true independence, holding out until 1990 to sell Specialty (whose catalog was bought by Fantasy Records).

“In only a little over ten years of activity,” wrote music historian and Specialty expert Billy Vera, “Specialty Records’ growth paralleled, and perhaps defined, the evolution of black popular music, from the ‘race’ music of the 1940s to the rock & roll of the 1950s. One might go so far as to say that Specialty became the quintessential rock & roll label, from its music right down to the crazy design of its yellow, black and white label.”

Art Rupe was born Arthur Goldberg in 1917. Growing up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, he was captivated by the gospel music he heard coming out of a black Baptist church in his neighborhood. After attending college, he headed for Los Angeles in 1939. He enrolled at UCLA and tried breaking into the movie business before gravitating to the more novice-friendly music business.

After a brief experience in 1944 as a partner in Atlas Records, Rupe launched his own label. In preparation he spent $200 on “race records” from stores on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. He studied them closely to determine what factors hit records had in common. He concluded fast tempos were preferred, the word “boogie” often appeared in the titles of hits and jukebox operators were an important link in the chain of distribution. He called his maiden label Juke Box and titled its first single “Boogie #1.” Cut by the Sepia Tones, it sold 70,000 copies.

Juke Box scored a major hit with “R.M. Blues,” by Roy Milton, who became a key figure in the success of Rupe’s next venture, Specialty Records. After Rupe parted ways with his partners at Juke Box, he vowed to do things his way at Specialty—so named because it was targeting the “specialty” black-adult R&B market.

Rupe was, both literally and figuratively, a hands-on record man. Combining a mind for business with a passion for music, he turned Specialty into one of the premier labels of the Forties and Fifties. He understood that music was about feeling, and that feeling trumped perfection when it came to recording strong performances. On the business side, he fine-tuned Specialty when it came to marketing, distribution and manufacturing. Early in the label’s history he researched principles of hydraulics and production at the library and oversaw the construction and operation of a pressing plant.

Rupe’s ultimate goal was “to just be a creative and effective record producer,” he told writer John Broven. “The sales and distribution part of the business didn’t appeal to me.” Yet he set up an effective network of regional independent distributors that allowed Specialty and other upstart indie labels to compete with the majors as rhythm & blues and rock & roll were becoming popular. In 1947, a year after its founding, Specialty established its long-time headquarters at 311 Venice Boulevard. Rupe was assisted at Specialty by a capable staff of A&R men that included such estimable talents as Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, Harold Battiste and Sonny Bono.

Specialty quickly established itself as a force in gospel and rhythm & blues. On the R&B side, Roy Milton racked up nineteen Top Ten hits at Juke Box and Specialty. More smash records came from Joe Liggins (whose “Pink Champagne” was the biggest single of 1950) and his brother, Jimmy Liggins (whose “Cadillac Boogie” was a virtual blueprint for Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88.”) Percy Mayfield, the eloquent “poet of the blues,” was another of Specialty’s standouts.

Based on his admiration for Fats Domino’s records, Rupe’s checked out the New Orleans scene. Specialty struck paydirt with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” the debut release by 17-year-old Lloyd Price. New Orleans notables Art Neville (of the Neville Brothers), Ernest Kador (a.k.a. Ernie K-Doe, of “Mother-in-Law” fame), Clifton Chenier and Earl King all recorded for Specialty too.

Larry Williams scored as a rock & roll singer at Specialty, filling the void when Little Richard temporarily abandoned rock & roll for religion. In addition the duo of Don (Harris) and Dewey (Terry), cut a number of rock and roll classics at Specialty, including “Farmer John,” “Big Boy Pete” and “Leavin’ It All Up to You.”

However, Little Richard was unquestionably Specialty’s biggest star. Picking up the mantle from Roy Milton as its foremost hitmaker, Little Richard hit the scene like an atom bomb with “Tutti Frutti” in 1955. It was the first of a pile of hits for rock and roll’s most untamed star, whom Rupe called “the most talented, yet undisciplined, artist I ever met...”

As the first rock and roll era hit a bumpy patch in the late Fifties, Specialty’s fortunes began to wane. The label had its last Top Ten hit in 1958 with Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” The label began winding down in 1960, and except for a flurry of singles in 1964 (notably “Bama Lama Bama Loo,” from Little Richard), Art Rupe largely exited the music industry.

Meanwhile, cover versions of songs written by Specialty artists like Little Richard, Larry Williams, and Don and Dewey—which were published by Rupe’s Venice Music—continued generating income long after the originals stopped selling. The Beatles alone covered three Larry Williams songs, as well as Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” and the legacy of Specialty records endured.

In the years after Specialty effectively ceased operations, Rupe explored other business opportunities while continuing to take in interest in the marketing and reissue of the Specialty catalog. Now in his nineties, Rupe says, “I am honored to be recognized for the achievements of the very talented performers and songwriters whose creativity I was privileged to record,” Rupe says. “They were notable for being among the pioneers of the music we call rock and roll.”

Inductee: Art Rupe (born September 5, 1917)

Art Rupe Talks Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti"

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